German/Grammar/Noun phrases

Noun phrases


So far we've only used pronouns in a sentence. But now the we've gotten the preliminary work out of the way, we can start using actual nouns as well.



As we mentioned in the section on grammatical terminology, we'll use the word "phrase" to mean a string of one or more words which forms a single functional unit within a sentence. There are, of course, different types of phrases depending on the specific function. In this section we'll introduce noun phrases, which tell you about the specific people or things that a sentence is talking about. So far the only noun phrases we've covered in detail consist of a single pronoun, the simplest type of noun phrase. Another possibility is a proper noun, meaning someone's (or something's) name. For example

  • Leila schläft. – "Leila is sleeping."

Note that the verb is conjugated according to the number and person of the subject, which for proper norns will usually be third person singular.

An actual noun can be part of a noun phrase, but in German, as in English, most nouns can't be used without words to introduce them. The words that can be used for such introductions are called determiners in general. In this section we'll be talking about a special type of determiner called an article. While most determiners convey additional information about the nouns they introduce, the only purpose of an article is to do the introduction.

German, like English, capitalizes proper nouns. Unlike English, all other nouns (but not pronouns) are always capitalized in German. This is a basic spelling rule in German, easy to understand and follow, and ignoring it will give the impression that you're simply not trying to write correctly.

Articles in German


In English, articles come in two flavors, definite "the" and indefinite "a(n)". The definite article is used before nouns which have been mentioned earlier or nouns that the listener will obviously already be aware of. The indefinite article is used before nouns which the speaker is introducing for the first time. This is about the same way it works in German, but German, being more highly inflected than English, requires different articles depending on the gender, number and case as well. In the nominative case, the definite articles are:

  • der – "the" (with masculine nouns)
  • die – "the" (with feminine nouns)
  • das – "the" (with neuter nouns)
  • die - "the" (with plural nouns, of any gender)

and the indefinite articles are:

  • ein – "a(n)" (with masculine nouns)
  • eine – "a(n)" (with feminine nouns)
  • ein – "a(n)" (with neuter nouns)
  • (nothing) - (nothing) (with plural nouns)

One thing you may notice is that there is no indefinite article for plurals in English or German. It's tempting to call "some", or it's German equivalent einige, an article for plural nouns, but the consensus is that these words be classified differently and that the indefinite article for plurals is the so-called null or zero article, which is really just saying that there is no article at all in this case.



Again, the verb must be conjugated according to the number and person of the subject. Recall that the verb we're using, schlafen, has a stem change in the third person singular:

  • Der Hund schläft. – "The dog is sleeping."
  • Die Katze schläft. – "The cat is sleeping."
  • Das Kind schläft. – "The child is sleeping."
  • Die Kinder schlafen. – "The children are sleeping."
  • Ein Hund schläft. – "A dog is sleeping."
  • Eine Katze schläft. – "A cat is sleeping."
  • Ein Kind schläft. – "A child is sleeping."
  • Kinder schlafen. – "Children are sleeping."

Articles as a memory aid


Since every gender gets a different definite article in German, a helpful way to memorize the gender of noun is to learn the article that goes with it at the same time that you learn the noun. For example, the word for "table", Tisch does not fit any of the usual rules for finding gender, and so the gender has to be memorized. So instead of learning Tisch as the German for "table", memorize der Tisch to remember the noun and its gender at the same time.

When are determiners needed?


As in English, there are certain situations where German does not require a determiner in front of a noun. German and English do tend to agree on this issue, for example plural nouns do not require articles in German or English. Substance nouns in English, for example "bread", "metal", "wood", "water", do not require determiners, and the corresponding German nouns, Brot, Metall, Holz, Wasser, do not require determiners either. But there are are exceptions and they are difficult to classify. For now we'll talk about a major one, namely that many abstract nouns often have a definite article in German when they aren't used in English. For example

  • die Liebe – "love" (the emotion)
  • das Leben – "life"
  • der Tod – "death"
  • der Weltraum – "(outer) space"

Since at this point we're only doing an overview of articles and determiners, we won't cover this issue in great detail here. The question of exactly when to use an article is difficult in both English and German. There are some rules, but these often have exceptions, and the exceptions have their own exceptions. Regional differences and personal preference can come into play as well. An example of such a regional difference is the southern habit of using an article with a person's name. Many of the rules are not applicable in enough situations for a beginner to try to memorize them all at once. Instead, we'll mention this kind of thing when we cover the situations in which they arise. For now, just realize that you may occasionally notice an "extra' article appearing in German sentence where they would not be used in English, or a "missing" article in German where an article is expected in English. These unexplained appearances and disappearances can usually be explained, but the explanation will often involve a very specific situation that we don't need to worry about for the time being.


  Introduction and overviewBasic terminology  Personal pronouns, formal and informal you, introduction to gender  Intransitive verbs, verb conjugation, present tense  Adverbs, V2 word order, Negation of verbs, Sentence adverbs  Stem-changing verbs, Weak vs. Strong verbs  Polar questions, V1 word order, Pre- and postamblesNoun genderNoun pluralsNoun phrases, ArticlesTransitive verbs, Accusative case, word orderPronomial possessives, Possessive determiners, Possessive pronouns, Negation with keinIrregular verbs, Past-like present verbsUninflected adjectives, Predicate phrases, Copulative verbsInterrogatives, der wordsFuture tense, The sentence bracketDitransitive verbs, Dative caseCoordinating conjunctions, Ellipses, Adverbial conjunctions, Multipart conjunctionsPrepositions with accusative and dative, Prepositional verbsPrefixed verbs, Separable verbs, Separable and inseparable prefixesImperatives, The imperative mood, The impersonal imperativeImpersonal verbs, Impersonal pronouns, the Point-of-view dativeDative prepositionsPossessives and the genitive caseModal auxiliary verbs, Compound verbs, Modal adverbsDemonstrativesThe simple past tenseReflexive pronouns and reflexive verbsSubordinating conjunctionsDeclining adjectives

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